Top 5 places to travel to for ancient sites

Short getaways to ancient times

If you want to visit sites associated with Ancient Mediterranean cultures the best places to travel are Rome (and Italy), Greece and Egypt but there are other places which are also great. The top 5 below are just the places which are easy to get to from the UK.


5. Pont du Gard

This famous aqueduct in the South of France is a beautiful site. Crossing the fast running Gardon River, the three tiered arches of light brown stone work is the epitome of poise and elegance.


4. Hadrian’s Wall

The opposite of the Post du Gard, Hadrian’s Wall is a utilitarian bulwark on the wilds of Northern Britain. Although the purpose for its construction have been debated, it is still an impressive site. You can walk along it.


3. London

London has several Roman ruins, including a amphitheatre and Mithraeum. Museums like the Petrie, British Museum and Museum of London are also richly stocked with ancient objects. If you are visiting from other countries, it’s the ideal starting point for excursions to Stonehenge, Bath and Coventry.


2. Cologne

The German City of Cologne was developed out of a former colony on the strategically  important frontier. The frontiers were vital areas for economic and political life of the empire. Cologne contains several sites in good condition and the Römisch-Germanisches Museum contains exquisite art and objects.

Roman Tower in Cologne

1. Split

Possibly unique in terms of modern cities developing out of ancient sites, the Croatian city of Split grew from the palace of the emperor Diocletian who after reforming the Roman Empire, retired to grow cabbages in his palace at Split. His palace was built like a fortress and resembled a roman camp in its organisation.

Parts of the modern city are built within the remains of these walls. You can visit converted temples and relax in the shades of grand rooms. Croatia is a great tourist location.


Wildcard: Coventry

The city of Coventry will become 2021 City of Culture. One of its hidden gems is a partially reconstructed Roman Fort, strategically placed near to the vitally important Fosse Way.


Top 5 sites in Roman London

Roman London was a sizeable town for the province of Britannia with around 10,000 – 30,000 inhabitants at its peak. This is small compared to other major cities of the time like Rome or Alexandria. The Roman city centred on the oldest part of London now called “The City”. It started around the barbican in the North to the River Thames in the South and from the Tower of London in the east to Farringdon Road in the West.

Though much is taken, much abides and there are plenty of things to see in London dating from this period.

Museum of London

The Museum of London is a good place to start. It has a fine collection of Roman objects found in London and replicas of Roman living spaces on display. You get a sense of the heaving, cosmopolitan and exciting City that London has been from the beginning.

London Wall

The remains of the old London Wall proceed from the Museum of London along London Wall. The bottom layer of this wall dates back to the Roman period although later additions were made in the medieval period. From here you get a sense of the size of the Roman City as it proceeds down to the river thames.


Part of the London Wall (a 13th century addition) in front of the Museum of London


A new addition, in some ways, to London’s Roman scene, the remains of the London Mithraeum (re)opened in 2017. Moved back to its original site underneath the new Bloomberg Space and re-jigged in a sensory exhibition which evokes the sights and sounds of a Mithraeum. For the curators of the space a Mithraeum was a boozy boys club with pretensions of mysticism.



The remains of the old Roman amphitheatre can still be found beneath the Guildhall Gallery. An impressive site, this amphitheatre would have seated 7,000 spectators (a large number considering the total number of inhabitants). Back in the day it was the location of Roman London’s more gruesome entertainments. Today it is sometimes used as a venue for dramatic performances of ancient plays.


Tower of London

Bits of the Roman wall survive around the Tower of London. By Tower Hill tube station you can also found an inscription and a replica statue of Trajan. A short journey walk away you will find All Hallows-by-the-Tower Crypt Museum which has some interesting objects and a model of Roman London.


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Roman Cologne

The city of Cologne was founded in 50 CE as Colonia Claudia Are Agrippinenisum on a site settled by Germanic tribes. It was a major centre for administration in the region. As such it was the seat of many major rebellion. It was briefly a capital city of the breakaway Gallic Empire. It contains some major archaeological sites.


Romano-Germanic Museum

The Roman-Germano Museum, next to the Cathederal sits on top of an impressive mosaic discovered during the construction of an air raid shelter. The Museum was built in 1974 around the mosaic.

The Dionysius mosaic

The Dionysius mosaic contains several references to the cult of Dionysius.



Sepulchre of Poblicius

The msuseum also holds the Sepulchre of Poblicius.



The Philosopher’s Mosaic

On an upper floor you can also see an additional mosaic called the Philosopher’s Mosaic. this portrays Seven major philosophers, revered in the 3rd century CE including Aristotle, Plate and Socrates.



Egyptian Gods in Cologne

Cologne was a major centre of Roman life and enjoyed a cosmopolitan religious life. As such it contains several figurines of various figurines including several from Egypt. It is hard to tell the differences between images of the deities of different traditions.


Oil Lamps

When I visited the museum was showing an impressive collection of oil lamps. All of a similar size and hue, the lamps contained different designs on the flat surface at the top of the map. These were crafted by pressing a fresh mould into the clay, making them cheap and easy to produce. Not all the lamps contained images of Roman gods, but some did.

An intriguing image shows a crocodile enjoying intimate relations with a woman on a boat, presumably on the River Nile.





The Praetorium sits on the ruins of the official residence of the Imperial Governor of Cologne. It is an impressively sized archeological site and is atmospherically set in the dark basement twilight. You can also walk along part of the old Roman sewage system.



Roman Fortifications

Cologne contains much of the old Roman walls.




Street furniture

Cologne is proud of its Roman past and the streets contains several references to it.



Overall well worth a visit for its history, culture and beer.

Nature through Roman eyes

Nature through Roman Eyes in the Manchester Museum explores how the Roman author Pliny explored nature in his book The Natural History.


Fish bowl


Pliny the Elder

In Pliny’s time, the Roman Empire was massive; stretching from Britain in the North to Sudan and the Sahara in the South and from Spain and Morocco in the west to Syria and Iraq in the East. Rome’s political power stretched further than it’s “frontiers” and its trade routes stretched further still to sub Saharan African, India and China, Russia and Scandinavia. As a result the Roman Empire knew many different climates, each with its own unique fauna and flora.

Although the product of the elite Roman education system Pliny the Elder was a life long learner and, you could say, autodidact. His nephew Pliny the Younger said that his uncle was followed around by a slave who would to him from texts. Pliny the Elder presented himself as living a simple life and complained against Rome’s increasingly indulgent excesses.

Pliny wrote the Natural History which covers all knowledge (not just natural history). It comprises 37 books. His encyclopaedia was “a mixture of folklore, amazing facts and entertaining stories”. Pliny claimed to have consulted 2000 sources and accumulated 20,000 facts. It feels like he didn’t discriminate between facts and so old wives tails jostle with scholarship.

Yet Pliny did observe nature. He is possibly most famous today for organising the relief of Pompeii and heading to the town to witness at close hand the eruption of Vesuvius. He died in the attempt. His nephew Pliny the Younger wrote a moving account of his uncle’s death and the eruption in a letter to the historian Tacitus.

Although the recipient of many of the trappings of Roman power and able to live in luxury (which includes leisure and education, the time to read and write), he complained about luxury. Chapters in The Natural History contain information on how natural resources were or could be used and interesting stories about them. For example, he writes how Roman soldiers were ordered to gather goose feathers for senior commanders in Germany. A most unroman act.

It was this that concerned Pliny about luxury. It weakened Rome. Pliny complained about the trade deficit which saw gold leaving the Roman Empire and being returned in luxury goods like silk, which become increasingly ubiquitous. His view of Roman indolence inspired later writers like Gibbon.

The problem with luxury is of course that what is defined as luxury always shifts . The Romans experienced this too. Tigers were originally rare beasts, too expensive to be slaughtered. By the later Roman Empire several had been killed in shows. Rome continually expanded its trade network for more and more goods.


Pliny Attenborough or Pliny Froude?

The exhibition walks a strange line. It presents Pliny as an activist concerned with environmentalism and at one point likens him to David Attenborough. Can we really say this about Pliny? His focus on nature does two things. It focuses on the useful and the good  He was also a colonialist and saw the world through “Roman Eyes”. Rather than David Attenborough, Pliny could be likened to a liberal high Victorian apologist of empire such as JA Froude. To this extent, the Manchester Museum is the perfect setting for the show. To be fair, the exhibition does state Pliny’s interest in the colonial project but it never quite examines how this impacted his understanding of the world and his book.

An antidote to this problem could be found by contrasting him with other authors. Herodotus is the most obvious author. In many ways similar to Pliny in outlook and approach, there is still enough difference between the two to begin to understand what being Roman meant to Pliny. Another interesting ancient author is of course Aelian. His mystical books on animals betray an orientalising gaze to India and Egypt which would be a good contrast to Pliny.

The most obvious solution to this conflict between Pliny as enlightened author and Pliny as colonialist slave owner would be to have the Other speak back. Rome used nature and imagery of nature to portray other nations and Rome’s power over them. For example, Ebony wood was carried in a Triumph by Pompey and Roman coins often use nature.


Judaea Capta issued by Roman Emperor Vespasian depicting two slaves chained to a palm tree (a symbol of the east).

Yet how did these conquered nations use animals? If you want to find out, I would suggest looking at some Greco-Roman Egyptian figurines. Isis-Thermouthis is the perfect anecdote. In Roman Egypt she was a powerful goddess with powers over fate. She was worshipped by Greek speaking members of the elite, but was little known outside of Egypt. Numerous figurines of Egyptian gods as Roman senior officials have also been found in Egypt. Ultimately ‘nature’ was a politicised concept in the Roman world but one that needs nuance to understand.

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L’épopée du canal de Suez

Suez, des pharaons au XXIe siècle


The Suez Canal is one of the world’s major waterways. In 2008, its busiest year 21,415 ships crossed through the canal causing a total of 1 billion tonnes a year. Institut du Monde Arabe is hosting an exhibition celebrating this great achievement.


A model of the three pavilions for the inauguration of the canal. The central one was for international dignitaries, the other two for Muslim and Christian clerics.


Suez in the ancient world

What most people might not know is that the Suez Canal began life in the ancient world. Various pharaohs attempted to unite the Red Sea with the Nile River and Mediterranean. The first possibly successful attempt to join the two waters was under Darius I of Persia. The Persian Empire was highly organised and efficient, especially with regards to its communications network. It had a highly efficient postal system. Ptolemy II restored this waterway and it may have been used during the Roman period when trade with Southern India was a going concern. Not much is known about this period of the canal’s history, and only shadowy references to the waterway exist.

Of course to call these canals the Suez Canal is a kind of misnomer, but they followed the spirit and intentions of the original canal and were likely in a similar region. The canal has always been developed within the context of empires.

This stage of the exhibition is covered by a few choice artefacts from the Louvre depicting the rulers. It’s a shame that more wasn’t done to examine what may have travelled on these canals, what boats used or who the people were who lived by the canals.



Suez in the modern world.

The exhibition is at its greatest in the modern period. It places the development of the canal in the colonial context following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Several Europeans attempted to build the canal during this period including the Saint-Simonians, an atheistic and socialistic sect of earnest French intellectuals. But it was Ferdinand de Lesseps (close to power having taught the future pasha how to ride), who was the one given the go ahead.

The Suez was built by corvee labour until 1864 when Napoleon III bowed to international pressure. This is one year after the Emancipation Proclamation. A compensation was paid to the company for the loss of labour by the Egyptian government. The exhibition shows scenes from the Egyptian film Shafiqa wa Metwali which reveals the deep cultural remembrance of corvee labour.

The Europeans liked to think they were more civilised than the Ancient Egyptians.

The show is full of objects revealing both the building of the canal and the artistic inspirations provided by it. The very first room plays the theme from Verdi’s Aida. Much of the art and associated architecture contained ancient Egyptian iconography, but not all. Hippolyte Arnoux was a photographer who rejected the orietanlising gaze and began recording the modernity of the canal project.


Chocolate Box



The canal today

The canal is of utmost political importance. It was affected by the Second World War. Although it was supposedly international and neutral but essentially under British control. It linked Britain to India and along with Gibraltar, gave Britain control over the Mediterranean. The war changed this geopolitical balance. At the close of the war, the Canal hosted the meeting between FDR and AL Said on the USS Quincy just after Yalta. At this meeting the US pledged to be allies to Saudi Arabia in return for access to Saudi petroleum supplies. This become the central strategic partnership of the post war period.

The canal continued to be in British and French control until the 50s when Egypt nationalised following similar models like Britain’s nationalisation of the railways. Britain was irate. Along with France and Israel it launched a war against Egypt to retake the canals. This was a bloody conflict, which could have been even more bloody. President Eisenhower demanded that Britain, France and Israel withdraw and the canals remained under Egyptian autonomy.

The Suez Crisis was followed by the Six Days War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, events as complex as they were short. The fact that these events are little known in Britain indicates that they are often not taught in schools.

The canal continues to be of utmost political importance, not least by the development of a controversial second canal. The exhibition never quite unpicks this contensious issue with the same honesty that it examines earlier conflicts.



Exhibition UX

The show is a refreshing combination of various artefacts and medium including reprinted newspapers, sounds and videos and models. A highly interesting show that takes a long view of a particular location, more could’ve been done to examine the lived experiences of the local inhabitants. Nevertheless a 4 star show. See it whole you can.


Memorial to the fallen in the first world war, Djebel Mariam, Egypt. Michel Roux-Spitz and Raymond Delamarra






Modern Egyptian artefacts

The past is present becoming Egyptian in the 20th century


Room 3 of the British Museum is currently dedicated to items from modern Egypt which tell the story of the country and its engagement with its own past.

The show includes several items including milk bottles, cigarette packets and vinyl records. We still find ancient Egyptian iconography on some of these items today.

The show follows on from the Museum’s crowd sourced Collecting modern Egypt project, but contains different items (including an additional sewing machine)

The most intriguing items in the collection are probably the fashion magazine. Egypt was often portrayed as female. In the postwar period, fashion magazines portrayed fashionable Egyptian women alongside ancient Egyptian imagery.


In the west “Egyptomania” is a known trend. Blossoming in the 100 years+ period between Napoleon and Tutankhamen, the imagery and flourishes of ancient Egypt were used in Western Countries to evoke luxury, exoticism and style. Egypt also experienced a reinterest in their past at various points of the twentieth century, including during times when they reaffirmed their national autonomy or sought inspiration.

Yet there is a missed opportunity to present a more complex Egypt. The recent show at the Tate Liverpool celebrating the Art et Liberté art collective revealed a vibrant artistic movement, cosmopolitan and politically engaged, who created powerful art which drew only obliquely, if at all, from ancient Egypt.

This criticism is perhaps unfair given that the show’s raison d’être is to examine how Egypt explored its own heritage, but more could have been done to place these cultural artefacts in a wider context. Nevertheless it is an engaging show, which offers a necessary antidote to histories of reception which only focus on Western engagement.

See it now.

Terracotta website update #3

I am developing visual designs for my website. As you will know, I want to reference archeological line drawings with a warm contemporary feel (simple colours and a flat design). So far, I have two chosen.

The first uses the earthy palette of the terracotta themselves. With just a little splash of yellow to pick out details.


The second design uses tones of the same colour. I will use three different colours.


Please let me know which is your favourite by taking part in my survey.

Joseph Receiving Pharaoh’s Ring

Dulwich Picture Gallery has recently shown the restored masterpiece Joseph Recieiving Pharoah’s Ring by the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.


Painted before much of Egypt was known in the west, the painting shows flourishes of the Eastern and the Classical. The pharaoh, a wise and bearded (white) man, wears a turban set with pearls and Roman cameo. Joseph wears flowing looks and cloaks from an earlier period of Italian history. The columns are Classical Greek, clean and white. An almost Germanic Wagnerian guard wears a strange griffin helmet. A cheeky trumpeter may even be a self portrait of the artist.

The painting is poised between movement and stillness, at the pregnant moment on the cusp of fulfilment.

After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt much more was known about Egypt. Egyptian style become de rigeur for everything from corniche work to woodnotes and daybeds. In paintings sphinxes, pyramids and obelisks were suitable signifiers for this exotic land.

Before this, the main sources for knowledge on Egypt were the Classical authors and the Bible. The painting is based on Genesis 41:42:
And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.
It shows the dramatic scene when Joseph is released from prison and becomes grand vizier. It is the key scene that instigates the arrival of the Israelites into Egypt.

Other sources would have been the Egyptian artefacts found in old colonies of the Roman Egypt, especially in Rome. These artefacts were both taken from Egypt and created in Italy to meet the demand for Egyptian art amongst Roman consumers. Sometimes this art could be very classicised.

The restorators have done a marvellous job. The colours are rich and deep and a lot of research has been made into the X-rays have revealed signs of earlier working, including various hand and facial gestures for Joseph. This offers a deeper understanding of the dramatic talent of Tiepolo and reminds us that he is creatively drawing on and developing a trope.

Rodin and the art of ancient Greece

Rodin never went to Athens. Instead he visited London, which since 1812 has housed that pinnacle of Greek art, the Parthenon Marbles. He first visited at 40 but was intimate with Greek sculpture from a young age. As a young man he studied in the Louvre galleries and in the print room, and in particular Le Roy’s Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce.




These fragments I have shored against my ruins

From fragmented Greek sculpture, Rodin learnt that bodies and body language could depict emotion and not just facial gestures. In his masterpiece, Les Bourgeois de Calais the six figures are portrayed in deeply psychological terms. Each has a character and psychology defined by both body gesture and facial emotion.

Rodin liked old art with its broken bits. He thought buildings were like bodies, they ultimately decayed and died. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon in 1894 following a major earthquake for this reason.

This did not stop him collecting classical sculpture and fragments. He would assemble them together with his own pieces to create new works. Throughout his life he studied Greek art closely and sketched ancient sculptures in his sketch books. Later in life, he revisited these books and began cutting them up.




Rodin and Phidias

The problem with a show like this is that you always end up asking yourself who was the better artist rather than explore the influences and connections. The best ancient Greek sculpture is peerless. To place pieces from the Parthenon, next to another sculpture will always be unfair, especially if the artists’ work look similar (unpainted marble).

Rodin captured something more than just form from the Greek works. He was interested in movement and dynamism. He argued that photography did not capture movement, it merely arrested its energy artificially. His best works capture this frenetic energy.

Yet can it compare with the works of Phidias and his assistants, who captured movement and emotion and eternity? Although the exhibition liberally quoted from the poet Rilke, will Rodin ever inspire a poet to write as Keats did?

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!



Museum UX

The exhibition was housed in the British Museum’s next wing. It was well designed, with a well considered UX, but people tended to crowd around large sculptures making it hard to navigate the show.





Overall it was an excellent show. 3.5 stars.